“The Great Comet” Crashes in a Storm of Racial Controversy
By CHRISTINE BAE
Broadway’s “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” closed following months of racial controversy due to public discontent with the changing of a lead role. After viewing the first performance of the play featuring Okieriete Onaodowan, I, too, am disappointed with this decision to replace him.
Based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” the plot follows the beautiful Natasha in Russia as she awaits the return of her fiancé from war. However, after being seduced by a handsome, but already wed, Anatole, her engagement and place in society is ruined. She then turns to Pierre, a kind-hearted drunk, for comfort and companionship.
The show originally did very well when it opened in late 2016, attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in ticket sales. With lead actor Josh Groban playing the role of Pierre, its unique staging and unparalleled light design, the show racked up 12 Tony award nominations. The musical seemed to have a bright future in the Imperial Theatre.
Groban’s departure from the show on July 2, 2017 and the entrance of Okieriete Onaodowan, an African American “Hamilton” alum, sparked issues with the show’s finances. Onaodowan didn’t do as well as expected in drawing sales, causing producers to look to Mandy Patinkin, known for the film “The Princess Bride” to replace him earlier than originally scheduled.
While there are those who believe that his short time onstage was just a part of show business, other fans, including myself, were outraged that producers were not only cutting Onaodowan’s run short, but also replacing him with a white actor. Sophomore Ally K. said,”I personally find it unfair that [Onadowan] had to suffer the consequences of the show not selling enough tickets. He is an amazing actor, who had a name that could sell the show, but clearly not enough for the producers to feel he proved himself as much as a white man with a famous name could.” Senior Summer G. agreed and said, “I feel that replacing [Onaodowan] with a white, ‘more famous actor’, was just a cop-out in a show that is known for being diverse and different than other standard shows.”
Shortly after controversy arose, Patinkin announced he would withdraw from the role. In a series of tweets he said, “My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”
Despite the apologies from producers and those connected with the show, “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” couldn’t recover from the financial disaster that the controversy invoked, and were forced to close.
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